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Odissi: a flower without the fragrance?
- Ileana Citaristi

January 16, 2014

(This article was written by Ileana Citaristi in 1983)

I was talking to an old devadasi of the temple of Lord Jagannath in Puri. She told me that all the people who were now proclaiming to have been the 'first' just took of the Odissi dance what they saw, understood, experienced or absorbed and went away to sell it to the world. But that was like to pick up a flower and think to possess its fragrance too, or to copy the recipe of prasada in the temple; it would not have the taste of the original one. In this way, they may have taken away the outward structure of the dance but not the core. This belonged to the temple dancers and would die with the last of them.

We have come a long way since the time when Odissi dance was a matter of lifelong training and dedication of a few girls, secluded from the rest of society and fully oriented towards giving pleasure to their Lord residing in the temple. The dance performances of today are totally intermingled with mundane values like ambition, competition, politics, money, showmanship, individual prestige and so on.

But in whose hands does the art reside nowadays? Each guru teaches in a different way to maintain his own stamp and property rights on the students; the students perform items which have been purchased as you would any kind of goods in the market, with the result that the present repertoire of Odissi lacks variety and originality. Leave aside the younger ones, even senior performers don't know or at least don't try to compose anything on their own.

In Delhi, a dance critic once asked me why, instead of the round bindi with the white petals around it, I did not draw an oblong one while performing. That would suit my oval face better. I stared at her and said, "I do not know, this is what my guru drew the first time I went on stage and it is supposed to be the right one." Back in Orissa, I brushed up my notes taken during my meetings with the old devadasi and I found that their bindi was not at all round: it was oblong like a drop, with a black spot at the bottom and a V shape supporting it all. So from where did the round bindi with white petals come? If it was just a convention decided some years ago for the sake of uniformity, then why should I not change it according to my taste and wish?

And here we are at the crucial point of the famous guru-shishya relationship of which India is so proud. Faithfulness and complete submission to one's own teacher; no right to decide if he is right or wrong; no complaints; no deviations. I admit that for some time it was all right. Coming from the experience of the 1968 students' revolutionary movement in Europe, with all the rebellion against rules, authority and boundaries, I could not believe that I had at last found someone to whom I could hand over all the responsibilities of my existence.

There were no alternatives: if I wanted to learn the dance I had to bend down to the rules. And this gave an alibi to that part of myself that was constantly searching for some substitute for parents in spite of all the revolutionary declarations of the other part that was fighting for an independent identity. But is this really in tune with the times? In this epoch of interchanging disciplines is there really any meaning in belonging to and depending on a single person as the sole repository of all knowledge?

Is there any sense in the way different gurus feud from the boundaries of their styles as if what they are dealing with was born with them and will die with them? It seems that everybody has forgotten that once, at the dawning of the dance revival, they were all sitting together, putting together all the different experiences they had had, and confronting them with whatever had been handed down by the written tradition. So at that stage, the discipline did not belong to any of them, they were just instruments, serving the cause of the transmission of the art. Maybe this phase lasted for too short a time and before a real structure could be laid down, they were already competing with each other over who was the purer or the nearer to the original even though the 'purest' or the 'original' has never been determined or discovered.

And if it is now impossible to bring all of them together again because individual ambitions come in the way, would it not be proper to at least codify the differences into well-defined and scientific gharana, so that the picture is not left only to the imagination of the poor student to be sorted out with all the attendant risk of incurring one or the other's anger. This will possibly put at the disposal of the dance practitioner a clear panel of variants, orthodox in style but at the same time open to different ways of utilisation. And it will give the dance style the possibility of growing into new combination instead of just repeating itself in closed and stagnant patterns, linked to the creative genius of a few isolated masters. For, what will happen when these few gurus are not there anymore?

I wrote an article on Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra's life; his training in dance and abhinaya included a twelve year stay with his master, learning the art of singing, playing drums, stagecraft, make-up, literature on Krishna and Radha, besides the direct experience of performing in all the different roles of the repertoire. His childhood fantasies were full of the world of Radha-Krishna and the different leelas. He did not have or need to have any further or broader education; this is what his world was made of.

On the other side, the old devadasi was telling me that her childhood had not been like that of her other classmates. Back from school, she was not supposed to mix freely with other children and go and play in the streets or along the river. She received at home, from her own mother, teachings about the Radha-Krishna cult, Oriya and Puranic literature, dance and its meaning. Her food was always the prasad brought from the temple and her dresses, except for the occasion of seva in the temple, were humble and sober. In this atmosphere, totally engrossed in religious feelings, Jagannath was the only emotional and psychological landmark of her existence.

Nowadays Jagannath's murti is on the stage, but the dance is done for the public. The same themes are conveyed but the situation is artificially recreated during the two hours of the performance and it dissolves in the background of the audience's daily occupations and preoccupations. Is this the 'fragrance' that is missed which according to the old devadasi will pass away together with the last one of them?

The stories of Radha and Krishna talk of the universal feelings of love and separation. But if the stories have lost their metaphysical reality and are just themes within the reach of human psychology, they surely don't need to be the only ones to be used in the dance compositions of today. This I say without trying to take away anything from the greatness of Jayadeva's Geeta Govindam or any of the beautiful songs of the Vaishnava literature.

The question is: Are we able today to render them with the same unquestionable faith and universal implications endowed upon them by their authors and reproduced in the lives and in the dance of the 'servants of God'? Or are we just getting the flower and leaving out the fragrance?

Dr. Ileana Citaristi is an Italian-born Odissi and Chhau dancer, based in Bhubaneswar. She was awarded the 43rd National Film Awards for Best Choreography for 'Yugant' in 1995 and conferred with the Padma Shri in 2006 for her contributions to Odissi. Citaristi is the author of two books - 'The Making of a Guru: Kelucharan Mohapatra, his Life and Times' in 2001 and the 'Traditional Martial Practices in Orissa' in 2012.

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